Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Cryptic Abstractions

Ambiguity is a powerful artistic strategy. When artists choose to conceal certain meanings of their work the more intriguing it becomes. However, ambiguity can also spark disregard - due to confusion, anxiety or condescension. These two different reactions of the unknown also typifies the intercultural dynamics of our post-colonial and global age. Cultures collide when there is fear or intolerance of what people do not understand. On the other hand great innovation and insight can come from the intrigue and fusion between cultures. In both instances of art and intercultural encounters the response either reveals peoples negative insecurities or positive openness to the unknown.

The exhibition Paintings from Remote Communities: Indigenous Australian art from the Laverty collection, Sydney – currently on show at the Govett-Brewster art gallery – gives New Zealanders a long overdue view into some of the most innovative contemporary art to come out of Australia. In doing so the exhibition also highlights the use of ambiguity as an innovative artistic strategy and the positive outcomes of cultural fusion.

Aboriginal artists living in isolated areas of Australia were originally given acrylic paints and stretched canvases in the 1970s so that they could participate within the European art market which favours transportable paintings. Therefore, Aboriginal artists of the 70s transferred sophisticated cultural traditions some that date back 40,000 years into the European tradition of easel painting. Organic patterns that once responded to the surface of the land, body or bark now tested the parameters of the rectangle. In shifting form a temporal site-responsive art-form to an autonomous and marketable art-form – at a time when European artists are doing the exact opposite - these artists interrogated the history of painting and contributed great innovations to contemporary art. However, the subsequent anthropological style representation of their work in exhibitions ended up exposing sacred knowledge that would normally be kept secret. Some designs that traditionally only existed ephemerally as sand drawings or body paintings – normally being erased during a ritual – was now recorded in acrylic paint that would be visible for at least a hundred years. This cultural misunderstanding has lead Aboriginal artists over the last few decades to strategically develop new idiosyncratic visual languages that encrypt ancient knowledge. Will Owen explains in the accompanying exhibition essay that this strategy termed ‘buwayak’ or ‘invisibility’ developed from the artists of the Yolngu people of Anhem Land, Northern Territory. The results are wild alluring compositions that both defy European painting conventions and retain sacred meanings. Such covert strategies also instil great wonder and invite the viewers - outside the artists’ culture - the chance to actively contribute their own interpretation of the imagery.

The curation of Paintings from Remote Communities respects the artistic strategy of buwayak through limited use of didactic information about specific paintings - letting the artworks speak for themselves. There is even no thematic narratives ensued via the exhibition layout rather curator and gallery director Rhana Devenport has chosen to represent the thirty-four artists in regional groupings. While each artist’s work is distinctly individualistic in style many share similarities with cartographic and microbiological imagery. Of the most striking is Helicopter Joey Tjungarrayi’s work entitled Tjuwiligarra 2002. Viewed best from a distance this intense painting evokes both fear and beauty. Intrepid blood red and russet lines seem to navigate the perimeters of the canvas and reverberate around a black void. The void has a frighteningly pupil-like appearance from which things are observed or consumed like a vortex. More importantly however this painting also resembles typographical maps, electromagnetic fields or microscopic life. Visual imagery that keeps reoccurring in modern science that has also been embedded in the art of ancient cultures around the world – significant perhaps of innate instinctual knowledge of the world and our place within it.

Another significant artistic development featured in the exhibition is the integration of textiles and painting. Emerging out of the traditions of weaving artists such as Regina Wilson applied their knowledge of making mats, bags and fish nets to painting. Wilson’s work Syaw (fish net) 2005 depicts intricate grids of threadlike lines - painted in irregular shaped clusters of different weaves and interlaced at the fringes much like a patchwork quilt. The result is a mesmerising matrix of tort and tatted line upon which one could consider the metaphors of intertwined diversity within communities or the patchwork adaptation of multicultural fusion. Wilson’s paintings also critique the support and surface of easel painting. The odd threadlike painted lines applied upon the carefully stretched and primed canvas surface both reveals and undermines the material preciousness implicit within the European convention of painting.

Paintings from Remote Communities is a visually stunning and dynamically conceptual experience that will either intrigue, confuse or elate. This exhibition also proves that not only is cultural diversity a precursor to innovation it is also that which keeps us healthy as communities and individuals.